AGAINST THE GRAIN

Women in 2018: Hear Them Roar

A feminist backlash against Trump has prompted more women to run for Congress than ever before. If they perform as expected, the House and Senate will have a record number of female members — by far.

From left: Reps. Kyrsten Sinema, Katherine Clark, and Joyce Beatty raise fists during a photo opportunity with the Democratic women of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 4.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 28, 2017, 8 p.m.

Driven by their disgust with President Trump, a historic number of Democratic women are running for office in next year’s midterms and are poised to reshape the political landscape. If Democrats retake control of Congress in 2018, their majorities will be reached on the backs of up-and-coming female recruits.

Given that women make up over half the electorate, that dynamic may not seem all that newsworthy. But despite their political clout, women haven’t translated their numbers into a governing majority in Congress or the statehouses. It’s an especially conspicuous challenge for Democrats, who rely on women to get elected but have lagged in promoting their own to higher office. There are more Republican women (four) serving as governors than Democrats (two). Democratic women greatly outnumber their GOP counterparts in Congress, but they make up just one-third of senators and less than one-third of representatives.

Trump’s election clearly woke a sleeping giant. Last year’s presidential election featured the largest gender gap since exit polling began in 1972, with Hillary Clinton winning women by a 13-point margin despite losing the election. In this month’s Virginia governor’s race, Democrat Ralph Northam carried a whopping 61 percent of the women’s vote, even as Republican Ed Gillespie narrowly won over men. If Democrat Doug Jones scores an upset in the upcoming Senate race in Alabama, it will be because of a backlash from suburban Republican women disgusted with Republican Roy Moore’s alleged misconduct. In a recent Fox News poll, Jones led Moore by 25 points among women even as men were sticking with the scandal-plagued Republican by 12 points.

Most significantly, the female-fueled backlash to Trump is poised to change the composition of the Democratic rank-and-file in Congress. This year’s congressional recruiting class is dominated by women. If Democrats perform well next year, they’ll have the largest number of female senators and representatives in history—by a significant margin.

“This is not just about 2018. This is a watershed moment in American politics,” said EMILY’s List Executive Director Emily Cain, who helps recruit and advise Democratic women who favor abortion rights running for office. “It’s the triple threat of Trump winning, Clinton losing, and dangerous policies being enacted by Republicans in Washington and state legislatures.” Cain said that more than 22,000 women have called the Democratic group expressing interest in running since Trump’s election victory—an exponential spike from just 920 who did so during the entire 2016 election cycle.

Both of the party’s top Senate challengers—Reps. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jacky Rosen of Nevada—are women. In 12 of the 16 toss-up House races held by Republicans, at least one of the leading challengers is a woman. Women make up well over half of the Democratic candidates in these top-tier races. Democrats have a strong chance to double their number of female governors, with strong candidates running in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and New Mexico.

So many women are running that some of the party’s top female talent will be facing off against each other. The heated Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary features a battle of Staceys: one (Stacey Abrams) unabashed progressive seeking to become the state’s first African-American governor, the other (Stacey Evans) looking to forge a path for Democratic moderates in a red state. In Virginia, five of the six candidates vying to challenge Barbara Comstock—one of the most vulnerable House Republicans—are women. Bet on it becoming one of the most contentious primaries in the country.

Looking ahead to 2020, many of the leading presidential contenders to challenge Trump are women. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar are among the most-hyped candidates for the future.

History works in funny ways. If Hillary Clinton won the presidency, she would have broken the presidential glass ceiling but probably would have caused Democratic complacency—not to mention a likely backlash in the midterms. Many of the recent high-profile cases of sexual misconduct might never have been unearthed, so as not to revisit uncomfortable reminders of Bill Clinton’s history.

Instead, Trump’s election sparked a massive feminist backlash that is only growing. His boorish behavior on the campaign trail combined with allegations of past sexual harassment was just the beginning. His failure to appoint women to Cabinet positions and judgeships exacerbates the gender gap. His unwillingness to criticize Moore over allegations of molestation just adds insult to injury.

It’s ironic. Hillary Clinton was seen as too big to fail for the feminist movement, with her numerous political flaws overlooked in order to rally behind electing the first woman president. It turned out that her defeat is leading thousands of aspiring women to step up and run for office.

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